“This is a true story.” This opening text, in both Joel and Ethan Coen’s Midwestern crime classic “Fargo” and the newest season of FX’s anthology series inspired by it, is a lie—a cheeky way to lend the neo-noir mayhem that ensues a kind of arch, true-crime fidelity. And yet, as is especially the case in this most recent season of Noah Hawley’s imagining, there’s a more essential truth to explore amid all the fantastical twists and you-betcha accents: The ways we bend our perception of reality to our whims, despite all evidence to the contrary. The events themselves may not be true, but the story explores a kind of universal truth that’s part and parcel of the human experience: Self-delusion.
And so it goes with the fifth season of Hawley’s strange, fascinating reinvention of the Coen’s neo-noir impulses, one of the series' most assured and entertaining yarns. It helps that the show moves back up to the Upper Midwest after spending some time down in Kansas City last season; we’re back to basics with a tale that feels like a fractured mirror of the 1996 film’s plot beats. We’re back in Minnesota, but this time, we’re in 2019—months before COVID, knee-deep in Trump’s second impeachment, with school boards raging and gun shops making bank off scared conservatives.
The skeleton of the story will be familiar to Coen fans: A prim, modest Minnesotan housewife named Dot Lyon (Juno Temple) finds herself being chased by two masked intruders in her home. But unlike Jean Lundegaard, Dot proves herself to be more resourceful than you’d think: she puts up a good fight, slashing fools with ice skates and making flamethrowers out of hairspray. Her kidnapping is decidedly temporary, though, as she escapes to a nearby gas station the first chance she gets—killing one of the goons and saving the life of Deputy Will Farr (Lamorne Morris). All this takes place in the show’s first thrilling hour, a magnum opus of tension and release that proves Hawley’s considerable chops as a director of thrillers.
But here’s where things take an even stranger turn: Once her escape is assured, she wanders right back home, starts making breakfast, and claims that she was never kidnapped at all—despite all evidence to the contrary. It’s a brilliant hook that immediately opens up all manner of questions about Dot: Who is she? Where did she pick up all these skills? And why, oh why, is she committed to the pretense that everything is fine?
The answers to those mysteries might lie with Sheriff Roy Tillman (Jon Hamm), Fargo, North Dakota’s deeply popular patriarchal lawman—a domineering, libertarian fundamentalist whose idea of keeping the peace means encouraging abused wives to please their man and stay submissive. He has a curious history with Dot and is committed to getting her back—with the help of his gung-ho cop son Gator (Joe Keery of “Stranger Things”) and an unpredictable foreigner named Ole Munch (Sam Spruell), who has a few bizarre secrets of his own. Meanwhile, Dot’s domineering mother-in-law Lorraine (a suitably reptilian Jennifer Jason Leigh), the wealthy head of a debt collection conglomerate, smells something fishy in the recent behavior of her daughter-in-law she never thought twice about and sics her eyepatch-wearing fixer (Dave Foley) on the case.
The only people who probably have Dot’s best interests at heart are Deputy Farr, grateful for the save, and local policewoman Indira Olmstead (Richa Moorjani, slotting into the Marge Gunderson role with ease), who seems wilier than her aw-shucks persona belies. And, of course, Dot’s guileless husband Wayne (David Rysdahl), who’s willing to question nothing if it means just keeping things all normal-like. But other than that, it’s up to Dot to navigate the life-threatening standoff she’s found herself in, desperately juggling the web of lies she’s spun to keep herself safe.
Season Five of "Fargo" goes back to the roots of the series, revisiting the essential building blocks of the Coen original while respinning them for a darker, angrier sociopolitical context. “Minnesota Nice,” as the season defines for us in the beginning, is about more than just trying to keep up appearances even if something’s wrong: this time, that singsong rural hospitality hides untold horrors. The Midwest of 2019 is an embittered place, as militias stockpile weapons waiting for “1776” and cop bedrooms are festooned with Don’t Tread On Me posters. Characters in power walk around as if they own the country; even federal agents are convinced halfway through the series not to step in on Tillman’s open collaboration with militia groups, or else their barrels might turn on them.
Hawley calibrates these moments of anger and darkness with pitch-black humor that accentuates, rather than releases, the tension. A mid-season showdown at the Lyon house on Halloween is replete with “Home Alone”-style booby traps (“Just home security!” Dot chirps at her concerned husband) and arch references to “The Nightmare Before Christmas.” Keery’s Gator is full of visual red flags, from his obnoxious vape to the backward wraparound sunglasses that make him look like Guy Fieri on a ride-along.
Then there’s Spruell, a curious creature who feels at once an essential component of the drama and a demon shoved in from an entirely different show. At first, he’s a sorta-copy of Peter Stormare’s character from the film (complete with a love of pancakes) with some Anton Chigurh thrown in the mix. But Hawley takes him down bizarre turns that border on the supernatural, as if Robert Eggers were brought in to guest-direct some scenes. In the mundane, human melodramas around him, along comes Ole Munch as an agent of divine chaos to spice up the proceedings.
But it’s Temple’s show through and through, a capable protagonist whose pursed lips and large, searching eyes tell us everything we need to know about Dot at any given moment, even if she’s lying to everyone else. Contrast that with Hamm’s quiet, downplayed menace or Leigh’s arched eyebrow and Mae West business-bitch purr. This season’s cast may be one of the series’ most colorful, in grand Coen tradition; no matter how small, every character has their own intriguing quirks. (Even Lukas Gage stands out as Olmstead’s childish, spendthrift husband, the polar opposite of John Carroll Lynch’s endlessly supportive partner in the original.)
The original “Fargo” asked us to gawk at the darkness and depravity that can lie underneath the quaint, friendly facade of the Upper Midwest; this latest season of the series digs its fingernail deeper into that societal wound. Of course, bad things happen to nice-seeming people, but now those sins feel even more acute, symptoms of a society breaking down so thoroughly even Minnesota Nice can’t hide all that anger. To that end, we all have to tell a few lies sometimes to get by—to create the reality we’d rather live in and cling to that fantasy, even as the real world starts whizzing bullets past you.
The first six episodes were screened for review. The fifth season of "Fargo" premieres on FX on November 21st.